How good is the Nigerian passport? By NIYI AKINNASO

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Over the years, there has been dispute over who should carry the Diplomatic Passport. At a time it was causing friction between the Executive and the Legislature. Currently there are 41 categories of persons eligible to carry the passports. How do we stem abuses? For instance, after you’ve left the service and the passport is yet to expire, are you still entitled to hold it and if not how do we retrieve it?” – Umar Bature, Chairman of the House Committee on Interior, making a case against the abuse of the issuance of the Diplomatic Passport by the government during his committee’s hearing on the matter in 2012.

Two of the many functions of the modern state are (1) to confer citizenship on its inhabitants, either by birth or by naturalisation and (2) to issue an international passport to every citizen to serve two principal purposes, namely, to function as a form of identity and to facilitate border crossing. Ordinarily, the passport you carry brands you as a citizen of the country of issue.

However, recent developments, including the bastardisation of the Nigerian Diplomatic Passport, as evident in the opening quote, have raised serious questions about the Nigerian passport industry: Does the Nigerian state have sufficient controls in place on the issuance and uses of the various types of Nigeria passport? Who gets what type of Nigerian passport and for what purposes? How “good” is the Nigerian passport?

By “good”, I don’t mean attractive, handy, or durable. By international standards, the Nigerian international passport (with the ECOWAS label on it) is good enough when evaluated on these criteria. The question, however, is whether the passport is respectable, covetable, or desirable at international entry points across the world.

The answers to all these questions require a comprehensive appraisal of the Nigerian passport industry. First, let us look into the varieties of Nigerian passport, who gets what variety, and how they are issued. There are three basic types of Nigerian passport, issued to three classes of citizens, namely, Standard Passport (green cover), for ordinary citizens; Official Passport (blue cover), for various state officials; and diplomatic passport (red cover), for diplomats and top state officials.

In addition, there are two types of special passport, namely, Pilgrims Passport (colour varies from year to year), for pilgrims to the Holy Lands and Seaman’s Book, for Nigerians working on ocean going vessels or watercrafts. Finally, there is the ECOWAS Travel Certificate, which functions like a passport for citizens of the 16 member states of the Economic Community of West African States.

The requirements for the different types of passport vary considerably, and they are stated on the Nigeria Immigration Service’s website, www.immigration.gov.ng.

Ideally, the Diplomatic Passport and Official Passports should be held by very few state functionaries. This is especially true of the Diplomatic Passport. However, this has not been the case, especially in the last six years when virtually every Tom, Dick and Harry close to the Peoples Democratic Party Federal Government could have one. As indicated in the opening quote, there were already as many as 41 categories of persons considered eligible for the Diplomatic Passport by the Goodluck Jonathan administration.

In response to the unanimous call by the committee members for tightening the eligibility criteria for the Diplomatic Passports, Abba Moro, then Minister of Interior, came up with this ridiculous argument as to why the eligibility criteria should be expanded, rather than restricted: “There are individuals that are allowed to travel with the President, for example, a governor who wants to travel and accompany the President. The governor has to be at par with the President. If the Senate President for example is travelling with his wife, he carries a Diplomatic Passport and his wife a Green Passport, they will be on two different lines; you are going against the biblical injunction that what God has joined together, no man should put asunder.” By extension, then, the President’s pilot, flight attendants, cook, and others, should have Diplomatic Passports in order to be “at par” with him.

It was this kind of reasoning and a permissive Presidency that led to the ballooning of the holders of the Diplomatic Passport and its abuse, which President Buhari recently decried. His predecessor, former President Goodluck Jonathan, reportedly was very lax with the issuance of Diplomatic and Official Passports, like he allegedly was with much everything else, allowing these special passports to be issued to contractors, pastors, and others who had neither diplomatic nor official mission.

Accordingly, the new Comptroller-General of the Nigeria Immigration Service, Martin Abeshi, recently urged as many as 21 former governors; 42 ex-ministers; and 309 former members of the National Assembly to return their Diplomatic Passports. The call was also extended to former members of state Houses of Assembly; former commissioners and special advisers; and former local government chairmen.

Abeshi rightly accompanied the recall of the Diplomatic Passports with an injunction to border security agents to hand over former office holders of Diplomatic Passports to the Police for prosecution, and confiscate their passports. This recall came on the heels of the arrest in Saudi Arabia of a former Nigerian lawmaker for allegedly holding a cancelled Diplomatic Passport. Abeshi’s call should be extended to holders of Official Passports as well, since thousands of them are believed to be in circulation among former public servants, politicians, and their notable supporters.

If Diplomatic and Official Passports are under such abuse, one can imagine the magnitude of the abuse of the Standard Passport held by millions of Nigerians and even non-Nigerians. This is not the place to tell tales of abuse of the Standard Nigerian Passport as many of them abound online.

Rather, the NIS should be advised to study the patterns of abuse and plug necessary loopholes. An initial step is to streamline the requirements for each type of passport. It is evident, for example, that the requirements for the issuance of a Diplomatic Passport, as stated on the NIS website, are too broad and, therefore, subject to abuse. They are simply stated as “Letter of introduction from applicant’s Ministry, Parastatal or Extra-Ministerial Department” and “Passport Photograph”.

Other steps include the elimination of the rackets and middlemen around Passport Offices and the speeding up the process of passport application. In this regard, the best Passport Office I have ever experienced at home and abroad is the Akure office in Ondo State, where applicants can obtain a new Passport within three days and a renewal the same day.

It is also very important to sensitise the Immigration Officials at Passport Offices, national borders, and foreign missions to the fact that the passport is central to Nigeria’s identity and that of her citizens. Their actions or inactions can go a long way in affecting the perception by the international community of the Nigerian passport and its holders. No passport variety should be issued to unqualified applicants nor should any person be allowed to enter or exit the country with a fake passport or visa.

At the same time, however, Nigerians can modify their own image at foreign embassies and international borders, by ensuring that their travel documents, especially passport and visa, are authentic and belong to them and not to someone else. Foreign embassies and border posts now have many more methods and means of scrutinising travel documents and verifying applicants’ claims. If you attempt to fool them, you will end up fooling yourself.

PUNCH